George W. Bush and the Cities: The Damage Done and the Struggle Ahead

By Peter Dreier

On April 29, 2002, the tenth anniversary of the civil unrest, George W. Bush came to Los Angeles to speak at a church-sponsored community development center at the 1992 riot’s epicenter, South Los Angeles. Given the occasion, reporters might have expected the President to announce a new initiative to address the nation’s serious urban problems. But Bush came to Los Angeles—in a brief interlude between fundraisers—bearing only rhetoric.

“You know, we live in a great country,” he said. “I’m proud of America. I’m proud of our country. I’m proud of what we stand for. Oh, I know there’s pockets of despair. That just means we’ve got to work harder. It means you can’t quit. It means we’ve got to rout it out with love and compassion and decency.”

Bush sought to be both preacher and historian: “Out of the violence and ugliness came new hope,” he said—this in the middle of a neighborhood where only 23 percent of commercial buildings destroyed by the riots were back in business, where 43,800 fewer jobs existed than did in 1992 and where more than one-third of residents lived in poverty.

The President touted his most visible urban program—encouraging churches to sponsor social programs such as homeless shelters, food kitchens and drug counseling. His proposal, which stalled in Congress because of disagreements over federal funding for religious activities, added no funds for these worthy, though band-aid, efforts, simply calling for redirection of existing moneys. Indeed, thanks to his $1.3 trillion tax cuts, mostly for the wealthy, Bush made it impossible for Washington to provide any significant aid to the nation’s cities or to the poor.

It isn’t difficult to understand why Bush paid so little attention to urban America. In 2000, Al Gore beat Bush among city voters by a 61 percent to 35 percent margin, virtually tied Bush among suburban voters by a 47 percent to 49 percent margin and lost in rural areas by a large 37 percent to 59 percent margin. Not surprisingly, Bush saw no reason to shape his policy agenda to appeal to urban voters.

Are Cities Making a Comeback? 
As we entered the twenty-first century, some urban experts and journalists proclaimed that an urban renaissance was underway. Data from the 2000 Census showed some promising signs. During the 1990s some major cities, including New York and Chicago, reversed their long decline in population. The nation’s urban crime rate was the lowest in a decade. So was the urban unemployment rate. Home ownership rates for Latinos and blacks had increased, although the gap with whites remained significant. Also, by 2000 the nation’s overall poverty rate (11.3 percent) and that of its central cities (16.1 percent) was lower than it had been in twenty-five years. Even air quality improved in many urban areas.

But the positive trends were neither inevitable nor durable. As the nation’s economy drifted downward after 2000, the indicators of an urban revival—reductions in poverty, crime and the number of uninsured families—reversed their direction. The improvements in cities during the 1990s were due largely to an unprecedented national economic expansion, reinforced by federal policies that reduced unemployment, spurred productivity, lifted the working poor out of poverty and targeted private investment to low-income urban areas.

The Clinton administration’s expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a wage supplement for the working poor, particularly helped people in cities and inner suburbs. So did Clinton’s efforts to promote community development corporations (CDCs). These non-profit groups have built most of the affordable housing n the past decade, but the shortage of federal funds for housing ensures that they can have only a marginal effect on improving America’s inner cities.

Urban Conditions during the Bush Years 
As President, Bush had three policy priorities: cut taxes, especially for the most affluent; reduce government regulations on business; and increase American military spending. With a Republican majority in Congress, Bush was able to accomplish all three goals. The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 helped reverse Bush’s declining favorability ratings and made it much easier for him to persuade Democrats to vote to boost defense spending, invade Afghanistan and Iraq and appropriate funds for a domestic “war on terrorism.” Bush inherited a federal budget surplus from Clinton, but the combination of huge tax cuts and increasing military spending led to record budget deficits, leaving hardly any discretionary funds for social or anti-poverty programs. Initial public support for Bush’s focus on war and terrorism also limited the Democrats’ willingness to challenge his handling of the troubled economy.

After the end of the previous recession in March 1991, the nation embarked on nine straight years of job growth. In contrast, the so-called “Bush recession” ended in November 2001, but over the next two years the nation experienced what some economists called a “jobless recovery,” with American firms sending a growing number of both blue-collar and white-collar jobs overseas. During Bush’s first three years in office, the unemployment rate increased from 4 percent to 6 percent, adding more than 3 million people to the jobless ranks. The number of people out of work for more than six months doubled. Median annual household income fell $500 between 2000 and 2003. The nation’s poverty rate rose from 11.3 percent to 12.5 percent; an additional 4.8 million Americans fell into poverty, reaching 36 million by 2003.

By 2003, almost as many poor Americans lived in suburbs (13.8 million, 38.5 percent of the poor) as in cities (14.6 million, 40.5 percent of the poor). The suburbanization of poverty might by be good news if these families lived in predominantly middle-class suburbs with good schools. But most of the suburban poor live in troubled communities beset with problems once associated with big cities: crime, hunger, homelessness, inadequate schools and public services and chronic fiscal crises.

The Bush years saw a continual fraying of the social safety net. The number of Americans without health insurance climbed from 39.8 million to 45 million (15.6 percent of the population). Some of the dire predictions about Clinton’s welfare reform program came to fruition during the Bush years. Robert Reich, Clinton’s secretary of labor, had warned that “[w]hen unemployment starts creeping up again, a long line of people are going to be in trouble because we’ve taken away a safety net.” For example, the proportion of families who leave welfare but cannot find jobs rose from 50 percent in 1999 to 58 percent in 2002. The number of former welfare recipients still in poverty increased.

As soon as Bush took office he broke his campaign pledge to govern as a “compassionate conservative.” His most symbolic “urban” initiative was a plan to redirect federal funds for social programs like homeless shelters, food banks and drug rehabilitation programs to agencies sponsored by “faith-based” organizations. The plan was exposed when John Dilulio, the conservative political scientist Bush recruited to run the faith-based program, leaked a letter to Esquire magazine criticizing the President and his advisors for their “lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more” about urban problems, observing that “there were only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis.”

Bush forged a bipartisan consensus in Congress to pass the “No Child Left Behind Act,” requiring local schools to increase student testing and to issue annual “report cards” on their progress. The purported goals were to improve student achievement (particularly in inner city and minority neighborhood schools) and raise standards, including hiring more qualified teachers. Education experts estimated that the nation’s schools would need at least $84 billion to comply with the new federal standards, but Bush only asked Congress for an additional $1 billion. Without adequate funds, local systems could not hire more teachers, reduce class sizes or provide existing teachers with additional training. Schools in inner cities, those most likely to have low-achieving students but lack the resources to add teachers or improve facilities, would be hurt most by the new law.

Housing for the poor was barely on Bush’s radar screen. In his first three years as president he kept the HUD budget roughly the same, but in 2004 he proposed major cuts to the Section 8 housing voucher program, eliminating 250,000 vouchers in 2005 and 600,000 vouchers by 2009, a 30 percent cut. Low-income tenants would face a rent increase of about $2,000 a year. In May 2004, testifying before Congress to justify these cuts, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson claimed that “being poor is a state of mind, not a condition.” This comment infuriated several members of the Committee, including Michael Capuano (D-MA), who told Jackson, “Apparently you don’t know anyone facing eviction or not being able to pay their rent.” Jackson’s statement unwittingly revealed the Bush administration’s underlying view that poverty is due primarily to character flaws among the poor.

Under Bush, rents and housing prices increased faster than incomes. In 2000, the national “housing wage”—the amount someone who is working forty hours a week has to earn to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment in a particular area—was $12.47; by 2003, the national housing wage was $15.21, much higher in many cities. Overall, rents as a percentage of income rose from 26.5 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2003. The nation’s homeownership rate increased to 68.3 percent in 2003, but many working-class homeowners found that the American Dream was a bit slippery: The share of FHA loans in foreclosure at the end of 2003 reached a record 2.93 percent, and among subprime loans, 5.63 percent were in foreclosure.

During the Bush years, the nation’s economic distress, including the spiraling federal deficit, created fiscal havoc among states and cities. Governors and mayors, including Republicans, complained that Washington was leaving them in the lurch. The skyrocketing cost of health care strained states’ ability to pay for its share of Medicaid. Governors were forced to cut funding for health care, schools, transportation and other basic services. Nor could they cope with the cost of implementing the new federal welfare-to-work mandates because rising unemployment made it nearly impossible to find jobs for many former welfare recipients. City officials, reeling from the loss of federal and state aid, had no choice but to cut essential services, including for public safety, libraries, road repair and public schools.

The cities’ fiscal trauma was compounded by the Bush administration’s most expensive federal mandate—complying with its “war on terrorism” and “homeland security” initiatives after 9/11. The federal government required cities to dramatically increase security measures at airports, ports and sports events, and to improve emergency preparations related to water systems, the 911 telephone system, public health and public safety, but failed to provide municipalities with adequate funds to buy equipment or to add and train staff. Cities spent $70 million a week simply to comply with each “orange alert” security threat warning from the federal Department of Homeland Security. It took the Bush administration and Congress a year-and-a-half after 9/11 to enact legislation to provide states and cities with funding to improve airport security and other measures, but a year later, few cities had received the funds they were promised. Moreover, the Bush administration changed the formula for distributing homeland security funds to the detriment of cities where the threats are greatest, in favor of less endangered (and, by the way, more Republican) areas. In 2003, Wyoming received $61 a person in federal homeland security assistance, while California got just $14 and New York City got less than $25.

Ironically, the 9/11 tragedy reminded New Yorkers and all Americans just how much they depended on government, not only in emergencies, but also in normal times. Even those who typically object to “big government” spending and aid to cities acknowledged that Washington had a responsibility to help New York City recover and rebuild. Moreover, for at least that moment in history, the nation’s heroes were the police, firefighters, EMTs, ambulance drivers, hospital staffers, public health experts and other public employees whose courage, commitment and compassion helped people cope with one of the worst single tragedies in the nation’s history.

After a few days delay, Bush came to the scene. With New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at his side, Bush promised to help New York City’s residents, workforce and businesses rebuild and recover from the economic chaos. He pledged more than $21 billion to help New York City, but two years after the tragedy, some city officials complained that the Bush administration was slow to allocate the funds. Indeed, by the time the Republican convention was held in New York in August 2004, the city had received less than half the funds Bush promised.

The Bush administration devoted more resources and attention to rebuilding Iraq than to rebuilding America’s cities. It failed in both: in Iraq, due to incompetence; in the US, due to lack of concern.

A Reform Agenda for Cities 
On many fronts the Bush administration is the most conservative regime of the past century. During the Bush years, progressive urban activists and policy practitioners had little success in promoting reforms at the federal level. With Congress in Republican hands, there was little progressives could do but try to stop bad things from happening: US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Patriot Act and other invasions of civil liberties, dismantling of federal consumer, environmental and worker protection laws, slashing of programs for the poor, crony capitalism, corporate scandals and tax breaks for the wealthy. Small victories, such as stopping Bush’s efforts to restrict overtime pay for millions of workers, had to suffice.

There is, however, growing momentum at the local level for progressive urban policies. The most dramatic example is the growing number of cities (now more than 100) that have adopted living wage laws, a tribute to the alliances between unions, community organizations and faith-based groups that have emerged in the past decade. The community reinvestment movement has made significant headway in forging grassroots coalitions to stop banks from redlining urban neighborhoods and engaging in predatory lending as well as to build partnerships with lenders to expand housing development. In some cities, housing activists have joined forces with unions and other groups to push for inclusionary zoning laws and municipal housing trust funds, such as the $100 million annual fund in Los Angeles.

Battles at the local level—e.g., to improve housing conditions, unionize low-wage workers in the service and light manufacturing sectors, resist bank redlining and predatory lending, improve public schools, fight against environmental hazards, expand public transit—can win improvements in people’s lives. But progressives know that we really cannot solve our nation’s urban problems without changes in federal policy. To level the playing field for union organizing campaigns we need to reform the nation’s unfair labor laws. To improve conditions for the growing army of the working poor we need to raise the federal minimum wage and expand participation in the EITC. To provide adequate resources to housing poor and working-class families we need a National Housing Trust Fund or other legislation to expand federal subsidies. To address the nation’s health care crisis we need some form of universal national health insurance. To improve our public schools, especially those that serve the nation’s poorest children, we need to increase federal funding for smaller classrooms, adequate teacher training and sufficient books and equipment. To redirect private investment to cities and older suburbs we need to provide sufficient funds to clean up toxic urban brownfields. To address the problems of growing traffic congestion we need federal funds to improve public transit of all kinds as well as federal laws to limit tax breaks and other incentives that promote suburban sprawl and “leapfrog” development on the fringes of metropolitan areas.

Progressives have increasingly recognized that any effort to address the nation’s urban crisis must forge alliances with some parts of suburbia. Congress is now dominated by suburban districts and suburbanites now comprise a majority of all voters. So the building blocks for an effective progressive movement today start in cities and move outward to working-class suburbs and some liberal middle-class suburbs. Recognizing this, labor unions, community groups like ACORN, Gamaliel Foundation and the Industrial Areas Foundation, environmental organizations, faith-based activists and urban public officials have started reaching out to the working-class suburbs near city borders. They know that they must work together regionally to limit suburban sprawl and traffic congestion or to channel jobs and economic development into declining business districts—in contrast to engaging in cut-throat competition to outbid each other for private investment.

In their book The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira show that a growing number of middle-class professionals who work outside the corporate world and live in newer suburbs share a progressive outlook on both economic and social policy and could be enlisted in a coalition that addresses issues of economic fairness, limits on suburban sprawl, revitalization of cities and expansion of social programs such as health insurance and child care.

The Clinton administration’s ambivalence about pushing an urban agenda reflected the Democratic Party’s own divisions. Democrats pay more attention to cities than Republicans do because many of their key constituency groups live there. The safest seats in Congress are those urban districts that routinely elect progressive Democrats. But Election Day urban turnout is typically much lower than turnout in wealthier suburbs, especially in mid-term elections. This can hurt Democrats higher up on the ticket—candidates running for governor and the US Senate, as well as for president.

At the same time, many Democrats, especially those representing suburban districts, are closely linked to big business interests who oppose progressive taxation, Keynesian pump-priming and social spending, including housing assistance for the poor.

The history of the past century shows that progress is made when people join together to struggle for change, make stepping-stone reforms and persist so that each victory builds on the next. This kind of work is slow and gradual because it involves organizing people to learn the patient skills of leadership and organization-building. It requires forging coalitions that can win elections and then promote politics that keep the coalition alive.

Grassroots organizing is rarely dramatic. The news media rarely pay attention to the small miracles that happen when ordinary people join together to channel their frustration and anger into solid organizations that win improvements in workplaces, neighborhoods and schools. The media are generally more interested in political theater and confrontation—when workers strike, when community activists protest or when hopeless people resort to rioting. As a result, much of the best organizing work during the last decade—including efforts during this election year—has been unheralded in the mainstream press.

Organizers understand that the defeat of George Bush is a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for moving a progressive agenda for America’s cities and metro areas. It is no accident that during the 2004 election season many labor unions, community organizations, environmental and women’s groups and liberal Democrats have put significant resources into grassroots efforts to register and turn out voters in the key swing states and Congressional districts. In Florida, for example, ACORN helped initiate a statewide ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage and is registering thousands of urban residents, mostly in low-income, minority neighborhoods, to increase turnout on Election Day.

No one expects a Kerry administration to be the salvation for America’s cities, but even a moderate Democrat in the White House will provide openings for progressive reform that were impossible during the Bush years. Equally important, if voters restore a Democratic majority in either the House or the Senate, many of the key committee chairs will be allies in the struggle for progressive reform. In this presidential election, as in none that we have experienced in our lifetimes, it is essential that the incumbent be defeated if a progressive agenda is to get a fair hearing.

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College. This article draws on the revised edition of his book, co-authored with John Mollenkopf and Todd Swanstrom,Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas, 2004). He is also co-author of The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (University of California Press, 2004). He served for almost a decade (1984-1992) as senior policy aide to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. A version of this article will appear in Social Policy.

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